Nancy Wright-DeKuyper, Christ Church Lay Reader
Forty days and forty nights….the season of Lent. But it seems that we have been living in this period for a much longer time due to the global pandemic of COVID-19. It feels much quieter for me, trying to focus on the meaning of this time, when it’s customary to give up or let go of something that matters. We’ve given up the world as we knew it. We went through a ‘desert’ time of no in-person Sunday services, from the second Sunday of Lent, March 8th, 2020, until, joyously we returned to limited capacity services in September until earlier this year. We have been living in some form of quarantine ever since.
Did you know that the word ‘quarantine’ is derived from the 17th century Italian word ‘quarantina’ meaning ‘40 days?’ Back then, the plague had been circulating around Europe and merchant ships had to wait 40 days before being allowed into the port of Venice.
We all know that the number forty is referenced many times in the Old Testament, from the stories of Noah to Moses to Elijah.
We have the New Testament seasons of Lent with Jesus fasting in the desert for 40 days and nights, followed by Easter and the 40 days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.
Lent has been the season of reflection, introspection, prayer, spiritual growth, and renewal. And, because of COVID-19, we have been given an unexpected but tremendous gift – patience, perseverance, humility, generosity, caring, and hope.
The Gospel of John helps us gain a further understanding of this gift of life: by truly getting to know God. Our belief in Him influences our actions and attitudes. It is not what we say we believe but rather a way to live, a way of being, that we walk with Jesus as his disciples.
Today we are in Jerusalem, following Jesus’ triumphal entry, close to the feast of Passover, and in the period leading up to his crucifixion on Good Friday. This marks the end of John’s “Book of Signs” with Jesus’ words about the “coming” of his “hour”, and prefaces the “Book of Glory” ~ the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Irish Jesuits, in their online ministry, Sacred Space, describe today’s passage in this way: “With Holy Week fast approaching, Jesus is here speaking in the shadow of the valley of death. We remind ourselves that without Good Friday there could be no Easter Sunday.” (www.sacredspace.ie)
There’s a lot going on in today’s Gospel reading: we have Greeks wanting to see Jesus, Jesus comparing life and death with a grain of wheat, Jesus demanding discipleship, the crowd hearing thunder while Jesus converses with His Father in heaven.
Jesus speaks in metaphors, using the figurative language of his community that helped people easily understand his teachings.
Jesus says that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
At this point in his ministry, near the end, Jesus is like the grain of wheat: he is very much alone and misunderstood, even though he is physically surrounded by people. He has performed miracles that make him popular ~ healing the sick, feeding the hungry, even raising the dead. But there were those religious leaders who were offended by his Sabbath healings, that he broke the Hebrew laws, and they feared the Romans would resort to violence against the Jewish people. Yet his ministry will bear much fruit through his death and resurrection, which will provide a new basis of faith.
This saying also describes Christian life, that through faith people die to an old life and enter into a new life of service to God and attaining spiritual fruition. But we humans want the easy way, from A to B with no obstacles in our paths; we want to see Jesus on our terms.
Sometimes we want something from Jesus more than we want Jesus himself. There is a real danger that we will become consumers of God’s life rather than participants in His life. We pick and choose what we like and want, but we skip over and leave behind what we don’t like, want, or understand.
But God’s plans are much bigger, more than we can ask or imagine. As disciples, this means means participating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and this is how God brings about spiritual fruit.
The picture of the grain of wheat dropping to the ground has everything to do with the meaning and purpose of our own lives.
At the centre is this saying about the seed, and the paradox of keeping your life and losing it, or losing it to keep it. It’s not just about Jesus’s death and resurrection. What’s true for him is true for everyone. You can’t move by standing still. You can’t grow by remaining the same. You can’t be great by playing it safe. You can’t stand out by staying within the crowd.
Keep your life and you will lose it. Hate your life in this world, and you shall keep it forever. If we are to follow Jesus, we need to go where he goes.
In her article, “5 Life Lessons I Learned while Facing Death” Dr. Julie Barrier quotes her husband, Rev. Roger Barrier’s oft-preached words:
“Most of us think that we are in the land of the living en route to the land of the dying. Nothing could be farther from the truth. If we know Jesus Christ, we are in the land of the dying traveling to the land of the living.” (crosswalk.com)
After more than a year of anxiety and uncertainty, with altered daily routines ~ mask wearing, social distancing, stay at home orders ~ we are fatigued mentally and emotionally. We are desperate for in-person contact; Zoom services have certainly helped us connect spiritually. But this has truly been a long Lenten-like season, much longer than we could have anticipated a year ago.
As a global community, we have faced so much suffering and loss, through illness and death. Some of us have known people who died from COVID, and our hearts grieve their loss. Lent is designed to help us confront the reality of our mortality.
Back in February, just as the Lenten season began, The Rev. Andy Andrews, rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Vicksburg, Mississippi, described this Lent as “a season of healing, a season of rebuilding, a season of sacrifice.” He said, “I feel it in my heart that this is just going to be the most meaningful Lent. It seems like we’re breaking into a new beginning.” (Episcopal News Service, February 2021)
I agree with Rev. Andrews. We long for our lives to return to ‘near’ normal in the not-too-distant future, that we can embrace family, to socialize, to literally reach out and touch each other.
As Lent comes to a close, many of the hardships we have endured have brought us closer to God, to become the servants God calls us to be.
Reflection with God is possible in any circumstance. God is not too busy for us, so let us use this beautiful gift of life that we have been given in the shadow of the pandemic: to be kind, to be courteous, to be caring; taking time to listen, to help, to leave everyone you see with more happiness, love, and joy with having seen you.
Thanks be to God.